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A Faraway, Familiar Place

A Faraway, Familiar Place: An Anthropologist Returns to Papua New Guinea

Michael French Smith
Copyright Date: 2013
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    A Faraway, Familiar Place
    Book Description:

    A Faraway Familiar Place: An Anthropologist Returns to Papua New Guineais for readers seeking an excursion deep into little-known terrain but allergic to the wide-eyed superficiality of ordinary travel literature. Author Michael French Smith savors the sometimes gritty romance of his travels to an island village far from roads, electricity, telephone service, and the Internet, but puts to rest the cliché of "Stone Age" Papua New Guinea. He also gives the lie to stereotypes of anthropologists as either machete-wielding swashbucklers or detached observers turning real people into abstractions. Smith uses his anthropological expertise subtly, to illuminate Papua New Guinean lives, to nudge readers to look more closely at ideas they take for granted, and to take a wry look at his own experiences as an anthropologist.Although Smith first went to Papua New Guinea in 1973, in 2008 it had been ten years since he had been back to Kragur Village, Kairiru Island, where he was an honorary "citizen." He went back not only to see people he had known for decades, but also to find out if his desire to return was more than an urge to flee the bureaucracy and recycled indoor air of his job in a large American city. Smith finds in Kragur many things he remembered fondly, including a life immersed in nature and freedom from 9-5 tyranny. And he again encounters the stifling midday heat, the wet tropical sores, and the sometimes excruciating intensity of village social life that he had somehow managed to forget.Through practicing Taoist "not doing" Smith continues to learn about villagers' difficult transition from an older world based on giving to one in which money rules and the potent mix of devotion and innovation that animates Kragur's pervasive religious life. Becoming entangled in local political events, he gets a closer look at how ancestral loyalties and fear of sorcery influence hotly disputed contemporary elections. In turn, Kragur people practice their own form of anthropology on Smith, questioning him about American work, family, religion, and politics, including Barack Obama's campaign for president. They ask for help with their financial problems-accounting lessons and advice on attracting tourists-but, poor as they are, they also offer sympathy for the Americans they hear are beset by economic crisis. By the end of the book Smith returns to Kragur again-in 2011-to complete projects begun in 2008, see Kragur's chief for the last time (he died later that year), and bring Kragur's story up to date.A Faraway Familiar Place provides practical wisdom for anyone leaving well-traveled roads for muddy forest tracks and landings on obscure beaches, as well as asking important questions about wealth and poverty, democracy, and being "modern."Michael French Smith helps organizations promote health, prosperity, and social justice in the U.S. and around the world through Michael French Smith Consulting. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3900-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Chapter 1 An Eccentric Longing
    (pp. 1-19)

    My first mother-in-law never forgave me for taking her daughter to an island in Papua New Guinea. She would find other reasons to dislike me in years to come, such as my uneasy relationship with stable employment, but I think the trip to Papua New Guinea got her started. It was 1975, the year Papua New Guinea—or PNG as many call it—gained its independence from Australia, and I was going there for at least a year to do research for a PhD in cultural anthropology. I’d been to PNG in 1973 for three months on Manus Island and...

  5. Chapter 2 Thoroughly Modern Kragur
    (pp. 20-34)

    I left for Kragur in early May of 2008 with a muddle of feelings, including lurking fear that I would find some things in Kragur had changed in ways I would find unsettling. I used to dream occasionally that heavy equipment had leveled Kragur’s irregular stone-walled terraces, bulldozed the shade trees, and silenced the rattling of the coconut palms. This was extremely unlikely. For several years, however, some Kragur residents and Kragur people living in towns had been trying to get a small hydroelectric generator installed in one of the island’s streams to supply Kragur with electricity for the first...

  6. Chapter 3 Hot Times on Kairiru Island
    (pp. 35-60)

    took a leave of absence without pay from my job to spend May and June of 2008 in Kragur. It went well. I’m glad I went. There were moments when, if a snap of my fingers would have transported me home instantly, I would have snapped. I blame a few such moments early in the trip on the crushing jet lag caused by crossing the fourteen-hour time difference between the eastern United States and PNG, pausing only to change planes in Los Angeles and Brisbane. Later, I occasionally felt like slipping quietly away and getting on the first plane out...

  7. Chapter 4 Wu Wei Wu
    (pp. 61-65)

    Feeling unequal to people’s expectations, being too hot, and coping with too much celebrity occasionally made me want to pack my bags and steal away. But if I just wanted to be alone for a while in a cooler place, I could go down to the shore below the main part of the village. There was always a breeze here, and the sound of the waves on the tumbled boulders, the weathered chunks of coral, and the smooth driftwood logs drowned any sounds from the village. Trying, always fruitlessly, to sneak up on the tiny mudskippers darting from rock to...

  8. Chapter 5 Is Kragur Poor?
    (pp. 66-83)

    At this point, to help me tell my story, I need to consider a question that might at first seem simple: Is Kragur poor? Kragur villagers go barefoot, they cook over open fires, they have no indoor plumbing, and they eat mostly what they can grow, hunt, or gather themselves. Since we already know that Kragur is not an exclusive retreat for international elites seeking a restorative back-tonature experience, this must be poverty. Although villagers bathe frequently in the stream, many make do without soap or towels. Most households have at least one kerosene lantern, but only the glow of...

  9. Chapter 6 Ancestors on Paper
    (pp. 84-95)

    If land is at the heart of village life, family ties—sometimes through marriage but primarily by descent through males from a common male ancestor (patrilineal descent)—are at the heart of questions about land. This helps account for how questions I’d asked in 1998, rather too innocently, in 2008 sucked me into both deep discussions of local history and the push and pull of intravillage rivalry. I arrived in Kragur in 1998 thinking I understood how kinship and leadership were related in the traditional system, but I almost immediately bumped into something that seemed to contradict a lot of...

  10. Chapter 7 Meetings and Magic
    (pp. 96-107)

    It took no effort on my part to get the straksa work started. The day I arrived in Kragur, a Saturday, several men approached me to say that they were ready to continue the discussions we’d started in 1998. By early afternoon of the following Wednesday, a small group of knowledgeable men from one of the clans had gathered on my veranda to start the kind of discussion of their ancestry none of us had ever had before. Representatives from a second clan met with me the following Sunday.

    A senior man started off one of these meetings by producing...

  11. Chapter 8 Preferential Ballots and Primeval Brothers
    (pp. 108-118)

    I have never visited Kragur for more than a few days without getting the sense that I was arriving at a particularly intense time in village life. I did arrive in Kragur for the first time, in November 1975, just a few weeks after Papua New Guinea achieved national independence; and in 1998 I arrived just after the end of a major drought. I know, however, that I get this feeling at least in part because being in Kragur is always a particularly intense time in my own life. Things also may seem especially intense to me in Kragur because...

  12. Chapter 9 A Clean Election and Its Messy Aftermath
    (pp. 119-134)

    There is a lot more to democratic government and a democratic society than voting, but the difficulties of conducting any sort of plausible popular voting are considerable. From what I saw in 2008, I’d say that Kragur people and the government election officials from Wewak managed it very well, and this is no small compliment. Not, however, that everything was sunshine and smiles.

    The elections for ward councilors and Local Level Government area presidents were supposed to take place nationwide at the same time as the 2007 parliamentary elections, but they were postponed until 2008, probably because preparing for the...

  13. Chapter 10 Life Goes On
    (pp. 135-146)

    The 2008 local election was under way when I arrived, and its repercussions were still percolating when I left. It was only months later that a letter from Kragur told me that the social mess the incident on the stairs to Rokerai’s house left behind had been at least formally put to rest. But if I’ve given the impression that everyone in Kragur was entirely focused on the election during my stay, I need to correct that. Some villagers appeared to enjoy the break from routine that the election brought but didn’t seem to care much about the results. One...

  14. Chapter 11 God the Father, the Son, His Mother, and the Holy Spirit
    (pp. 147-160)

    I’ve already been to church once in this book, but that is hardly enough for any visitor to Kragur serious about getting to know its people, for they have always been very religious. Religion also has played a starring role in Kragur people’s experience of the modern world. Encounters with Yuropian religion have not been, I think, as disruptive for Kragur people as the encounter with a world in which money is central. They have always had an active relationship with greater- and other-than-human beings and powers, a relationship they consider vital to everyone’s welfare and central to clan and...

  15. Chapter 12 No Two Ways about It
    (pp. 161-170)

    Over the many years I’ve known Kragur, questions about who is or should be leading the village have only multiplied. In the 1970s, some villagers blamed many of Kragur’s problems on lack of strong, centralized leadership, and many argued that the wealthy Yuropian countries of the world owed their strength in part to such leadership. But ironically, the more entangled Kragur gets with the wider world, the more leaders and would-be leaders proliferate and the more complicated become the choices they face about which direction to lead.

    The coming of the council system decades ago opened a new arena in...

  16. Chapter 13 The Long Good-bye
    (pp. 171-183)

    A couple of weeks before my departure from Kragur, villagers started inviting me for farewell meals, and a few started talking about putting on some kind of villagewide farewell event. The event would be modest, in view of the postelection tensions in the village. Also, no one knew when they’d get news from Moses Manwau about the progress of his legal battle for a parliamentary seat, and no one could guess whether the news would call for public rejoicing (and perhaps some private grumbling) or would leave Kragur people dejected (with perhaps a few pockets of private rejoicing). Perhaps, someone...

  17. Chapter 14 One More Look
    (pp. 184-202)

    Early in 2011, I found myself with no pressing commitments, due to my career transition, yet with a little money in the bank. I took this rare opportunity to go back to Kragur again for a few weeks, from the beginning of February through early March. I wasn’t suffering from the scourge of the staff meeting or the knout of the time sheet, but this was a chance to finish a couple of missions in person.

    I had finished organizing the clan history information and—with the help of Tina Zarpour, an anthropologist with better computer skills than mine—putting...

  18. Appendix: Tok Pisin and Tok Pisin Pronunciation
    (pp. 203-204)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 205-214)
  20. References
    (pp. 215-224)
  21. Index
    (pp. 225-230)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-237)